Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Books BITS enjoyed in 2014

Here’s a top-15 list of novels, novellas, and short story collections by writers of frontier fiction reviewed here at BITS this year. Like last year, it’s a mixture of old, not-so-old, and recent. Click through for the full reviews.


After the muddled The Bounty Hunters (1953), Elmore Leonard’s skill as a novelist took a quantum leap forward with this novel. Hombre is a tense western thriller that is also a fascinating study of an enigmatic character. That character is John Russell, the “hombre” of the title. More.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Illustrators of early frontier fiction, Maynard Dixon, cont.

Magazine cover, 1904, Maynard Dixon
Last week I blogged one day about the artist Maynard Dixon, with examples of his book illustration for several novels. Today I have gathered some of his illustrations for the western novels of another writer, Clarence E. Mulford (1883–1956), best known as the originator of the character Hopalong Cassidy.

Cassidy had already been portrayed by another illustrator, Frank Schoonover for a story, “The Fight at Buckskin,” first published in the December 1905 issue of Outing Magazine and later appearing as the opening chapter of Mulford’s Bar-20 (1907).

The bunch of Texas cowboys at the Bar-20 comprised the dramatis personae of a series of Mulford novels, following the example of B. M. Bower, who had her own set of recurring characters from a Montana ranch, the Flying U.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


Bus ride
My wife Lynda and I have gone through many a rough patch in 49 years of marriage with a mantra: “We’re resourceful people; think of this as an adventure.” And so when we got my diagnosis of brain cancer a year ago, this new development became a “medical adventure.” That frame of mind has pretty much seen us through so far, including now, as she has sustained a broken arm.

As I said here last week, her broken arm has required us to switch roles as each other’s caregiver. That has meant among other things for me having to use public transportation to get from our house to/from town, the post office, the grocery store, medical appointments—yet another adventure, though not a new one.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Edward A. Grainger, Further Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles

As part of his education of a pulp writer, David Cranmer has been reinventing the traditional western over the past several years with his introduction of two deputy U.S. marshals, Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles. The two peace officers work out of 1880s Cheyenne, Wyoming, bringing in malefactors, felons, and fugitives from justice, of which as we know, there were plenty in the Old West.

Both men are admirable in their own ways not to say distinctive in their manner and personal style, as is often the case in pulp fiction. Cash Laramie has acquired a reputation as the Outlaw Marshal, stepping at times outside the precise requirements of his job description to bring undesirables to heel. Historians will recognize in him the thin gray line that separated the lawful and unlawful activities of frontier lawmen whose skill with side arms also qualified them as gunfighters.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas wishes

I wish you a holiday season that is mellow as Oscar Peterson's music. May the days bring all you hope for and a new year full of promise.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Role switch

Snowflake lights for the holiday
This will be short. My wife fell Friday and broke her upper arm. We were at a cabin in the pine woods around Idyllwild, California, celebrating our 49th anniversary. She slipped on a frost-covered porch step. Because the effects of cancer make it unsafe for me to drive, the fire department was called, and she was taken in an emergency unit to a hospital in Palm Springs.

Two wonderful friends who live near us and happened to be home from work not only brought my wife home from the hospital that evening but drove up the mountain to retrieve me the dog, and our car. My wife is passing her second day at home, sleeping OK with arm in a sling and managing the pain with meds.

I’m fortunately coming down off my last round of chemo and have the energy to be chief caregiver—a role I’m happy to take. But being unable to drive, I’m a little less than adequate for the job. Public transportation is sketchy, though I’ve been studying the bus schedules, and getting around is not impossible.  We can have meals delivered from restaurants in town, as long as it’s pizza, pasta, Mexican, or Thai.

A convenience store is located about a 5-minute walk away, so we shouldn’t run out of milk, breador beer, should it come to that. We already know that the hospital pharmacist will deliver prescriptions to the door. And just about anything else can be ordered for next-day delivery from Amazon. Material needs will be taken care of.

Monday morning, I’ll be on the phone to the social worker who is on staff at the Cancer Center, to see what she can do for me to get to my own doctors appointments, as they will be starting up again after the holidays. The irony is that this new development has forced me to become more self-reliant, while at the same time, showing me how interdependent our lives are with others. Even my dog Zoe, who watches us and registers every wave of our concern, is quick to offer loving company.

Meanwhile, a pot of vegetable soup is simmering on the kitchen stove. And so life goes on.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Illustrators of early frontier fiction: Maynard Dixon

Maynard Dixon
Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) was a California-born illustrator and painter, whose work often captured the spirit and human drama of the American West. As an artist, he is remembered for his landscape paintings, which capture the scale and grandeur of desert and sky. As a book illustrator, he brought a surge of romanticism to the drama, mystery, and excitement to be found in frontier fiction of the time.

Here are his illustrations from nine novels by various authors. Notice in particular the use of light and shadow to strike a mood and to heighten the intensity of interaction between characters. 

Some are moments frozen, as if movement were stopped by the shutter of a camera--a soldier hurriedly dismounting a horse; a figure striding by in the foreground as two men on horseback exchange words. Some use body posture to portray emotions--a woman tentatively touching the shoulder of a cowboy leaning against the horse she is riding. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014


Another sunrise
Today is Day 3 of the current five-day round of chemo. Yesterday I hardly got out of bed, mostly read, finishing an old public domain novel, Francis Lynde’s Empire Builders (1907), and starting into Edward Grainger’s new collection of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles stories. My appetite iffy, I “feasted” on saltines, dried fruit, and herb tea during the day. Come evening, there was my very own homemade chicken soup. With cancer, you tend to dwell on these quotidian details.

With the shift in perspective that comes with cancer, I have begun getting more than the usual degree of otherworldly notions. I say this without any wish to be maudlin, but I am reminded with more frequency of the difference between mortality as I’ve known it and what it insists on meaning now. An abstraction before cancer, it has become much more personal. An uncertainty has become a certainty.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

A frequent complaint about westerns is that there are few strong roles for women. Katie Elder, the title character of this John Wayne film would be an exception, except for the fact that she is dead. Her four sons, as the film begins, are gathering for her funeral. As they talk about her, we learn that she overcame all manner of adversities and obstacles and remained proud of her offspring, despite the fact that they have done little to deserve her high regard.

Wayne, the eldest, has a reputation as a gunslinger. One brother (Dean Martin), is a gambler and wanted for murder. The other two (Earl Holliman, Michael Anderson, Jr.) have yet to make a mark in the world, though Anderson refuses to get the college education his mother wanted for him and intends instead to follow in Wayne’s adventuring footsteps.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Let’s get lost

Rainclouds over San Jacinto
I have thought for a long time that when all is said and done, I would like my life to “add up to something.” And those four words used to mean something, though I can't say just what anymore. I don't mean a CV or resume-style summary of my professional life, which used to be enough for a job interview. (What job would I be applying for now anyway? Good question.). I don't mean an obit page wrap-up either, or a Ralph Edwards This Is Your Life portrayal. So I know what I don’t mean, but whatever I do mean, the idea won't go away.

Maybe this is just a long way around to saying that I've begun to resist being a cancer patient. My days have become increasingly organized around that identity: the MRIs and daily meds routines, the appointments with doctors, the chemo and its side effects, the regime of exercise, physical therapy, meditation, and relaxation videos, while staying positive and getting enough rest. etc. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Giles A. Lutz, The Honyocker (1961)

Giles A. Lutz (1910-1982) was a prolific writer, with over 60 western novels published under his own name and a half dozen pseudonyms. During the 1940s and 1950s, he published more than 200 stories in the pulps, mostly westerns, but also sports fiction. In 1962, he received the Spur Award for this novel, The Honyocker, from Western Writers of America.

Plot. “Honyocker” was an insulting term bestowed by cattlemen and cowboys on homesteaders in the far West, who attempted to make a living from subsistence farming on what had at one time been open range. Turning the prairie sod, they were destroying not only free grass for the ranchers. Unknown to them, they were also permanently disturbing a fragile ecology too arid for cultivation of dryland crops that would support a family of settlers.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Illustrators of early frontier fiction:
N. C. Wyeth

N. C. Wyeth in his studio, c1903
One of the most vividly dramatic illustrators of novels during the turn of the last century was N. C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth (1882-1945). Born in Massachusetts and growing up on a farm, he descended from a family that first settled in New England in the 17th century and later participated in the Revolutionary War.

Wyeth was gifted as a watercolorist from an early age and studied illustration under Howard Pyle, considered today as the father of American illustration. Pyle taught his students to respect historical accuracy, while adding a romantic flair, traits that became marks of Wyeth's style and surely shaped the imagination of a generation of readers of early frontier fiction.